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7 min read

How to Protect Your Dog from Desert Wildlife


By Leslie Ingraham

Published: 11/07/2021, edited: 11/07/2021

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People who are not from the desert may not know about some of the critters that live there, many of which may prey on domestic animals like dogs. Fenced yards and leashes can be defeated by these critters — in most cases, it’s best to learn how to avoid or prevent confrontation to start with. A dog’s natural curiosity can put Fido in danger, and it’s up to pet parents to recognize the hazards and keep pets out of harm’s way.

Whether you’re doing some desert exploring or you're moving there, remember that wildlife in the daytime heat and nighttime coolness might attack a curious pooch. Some are predators, but some are just protecting themselves and their homes. The good news is that there are things you can do to help protect your dog from them.

What dangerous creatures live in and around the desert?

A surprisingly large number of animals live in the desert. Some will run and hide at any sign of a human or canine. Others will be disinterested if you pass, while others are aggressive and will come looking for a fight.

How do you protect dogs from wildlife in the desert? We've provided some tips for keeping your dog safe from rattlesnakes, scorpions, mountain lions, venomous spiders, and Gila monsters.


How to identify a rattlesnake

The rattlesnake is a venomous reptile with a diamond-shaped head and a large, muscular body that can range from one to eight feet long. They’re recognizable from the rattle that forms the end of the snake’s tail. They live mostly in the underbrush, but occasionally, you may see one basking in the sun in the middle of a trail. 

When a threat appears, some rattlesnakes silently move away and hide, but when provoked, they may attack. Rattlesnakes can only attack from a coiled position, so if they’re stretched out, they may rattle and approach but will take some time to coil. This is the perfect time to back away with your pooch.

Severity of a rattlesnake bite

Rattlesnake bites swell quickly and bleed freely. They should be considered a veterinary medical emergency. Infections may arise at the wound site or from blood toxins injected through the fangs. It’s important to keep the dog as still as possible and get them to the vet or emergency vet clinic!

Symptoms of a rattlesnake bite include:

  • Excessive bleeding
  • Rapid swelling
  • Loss of muscle strength or coordination
  • Paralysis

At the hospital, the veterinarian will administer IV fluids with antivenin, a drug that inactivates the venom. It’s best if this is given within four hours of the bite. The vet may also prescribe antibiotics for infection.

The cost of veterinary care ranges from $3,000 to $10,000. Some dogs, especially if they are old or very young, or if they have other medical issues, may not make it after a rattlesnake bite, but they will have the best chance for survival with quick intervention.

Tips for protecting your dog from rattlesnakes

  • Always keep your dog on a leash when exploring the desert
  • Build a snake barrier around your yard
  • Use natural, non-toxic repellents like vinegar and ammonia

For more information, check out our guide on protecting your dog from venomous snakes.


How to identify a scorpion

Scorpions are recognizable by their lobster-type bodies with claws in front and a long, curled stinger tail. They may appear dark or light brown. While they may live in burrows or indoors, they prefer to make their homes in dark, quiet places, such as in a boot or shoe.

Scorpions tend to retreat when confronted with a human or animal. However, if they feel they’re in danger, they will attack, using their tails to inject venom into their victim.

Severity of a scorpion bite

Some scorpions are not as venomous as others; the larger the scorpion, the less venom it carries. However venomous the scorpion may be, their sting will cause severe pain, and the stinger may embed itself in the dog’s skin.

Symptoms of scorpion bites in dogs include:

Treatment of a scorpion bite involves removal of the stinger, if possible, followed by wound cleaning and application of a cold compress to help with the pain. You will also receive a prescription for pain and allergy medications to be taken at home. Expect fees for a veterinary visit to exceed $500 to $1,000.

Tips for protecting your dog from scorpions

  • Keep your dog indoors at night
  • Remove potential homes for scorpions from your home and yard, like cracks in the walls or large rocks
  • Don't let your dog dig holes in any areas that may be home to scorpions

For more information, check out our guide on protecting your dog from scorpions.

Mountain lions

How to identify a mountain lion

Also called a cougar or puma, the mountain lion is a big cat with a long tail and a black "mustache". Their coat is typically sandy brown, but can also be slightly gray or red. These cats are about two and a half feet tall from paw to shoulder and can weigh up to 160 pounds.

Mountain lions are shy animals that retreat when they see or smell a human. However, if your dog gets away from you and corners the cat, it may attack. Often, the attack is a swipe with a clawed paw and a hasty retreat, but if the dog fights back, bites can occur.

Mountain lions sleep in cool caves during the day and come out at night to hunt. Their diet consists mostly of small rodents, but a small dog might attract them as well. They’ve been known to come into yards looking for prey, so go out with your dog at night. Don’t leave them tied up or wandering in the dark.

Severity of a mountain lion wound

A mountain lion wound is likely to look like a tear in the skin. Mountain lion bites in dogs can be deep and potentially life-threatening, depending on the location of the wound.

A veterinarian will clean the wound, stitch it up and dress it. Intravenous fluids, antibiotics, and follow-up visits will bring the invoice total up to $1,000 to $2,000 or more.

Tips for protecting your dog from mountain lions

  • Avoid feeding your dog outdoors — this can attract the mountain lion's prey
  • Bring your dog indoors at night
  • Secure your trash cans

Venomous desert spiders

How to identify venomous desert spiders

The most common spiders found in desert areas are the brown and desert recluse and the black widow. While tarantulas live in desert climates and deliver a painful bite, they aren’t dangerous. Their venom is about the same strength as that of a bee sting. Allergies to spider venom are rare, but it’s wise to keep an eye on the doggo for signs.

Recluse spiders can be identified by their light or medium brown color and the violin-shaped marking on their backs. They hide during the night and come out after dark to hunt, killing cockroaches and other insects. During daylight hours, you may find them inside a dog toy or a pile of laundry. Be sure to shake out clothes and other laundry before using them.

Black widows are all black with long, thin legs. Female black widows may have bright red hourglass or triangle shapes on their stomachs, but not all do. Male black widows are much smaller than females and may have red and white stripe markings on the abdomen.

Severity of recluse and black widow bites in dogs

Recluse spiders are most likely to bite a dog if the pup lies on one or steps on it. Recluse spider venom is toxic to dogs, and death may result in small dogs. A visit to the vet following a bite will can cost approximately $800 to $1,000 with follow-up visits to tend to the wound. Treatment includes antibiotics, IV fluids, wound care and supportive care if needed.

Black widow bites are also venomous to dogs — seek immediate treatment if you think your pup has been bitten by a black widow. Symptoms include:

  • Painful muscle cramps
  • Tremors
  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Paralysis

The bite may result in death. Treatment includes IV fluids, the use of an antivenom, pain and anti-seizure medications, and symptomatic supportive care.

Tips for protecting your dog from venomous spiders

  • Check dog toys, linens, shoes, and other spider hiding places regularly
  • Remove debris and clutter from your yard
  • Use natural repellents like vinegar and cedar shavings

For more information, check out our guide on protecting your dog from venomous spiders.

Gila monsters

How to identify a Gila monster

Gila monsters are lizards with black, yellow, or light pink spots and striped tails. They mostly live in burrows, away from densely populated areas. They can grow up to two feet long and tend to steer clear of humans and other animals.

While Gila monsters are not considered aggressive, they will bite when cornered, and their bite can result in lizard venom poisoning in dogs. These nasty critters have sharp teeth, and once they’ve bitten down, they don’t let go. Often, their mouths have to be pried open to get them to release the dog. The longer they've had a hold on poor Fido, the worse the wound and possible lizard venom poisoning.

Severity of a Gila monster bite in dogs

The Gila monster's venom isn't potent enough to kill a healthy human, but its effects can be more severe in dogs. Dogs who have been bitten by a Gila monster may experience:

  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive urination
  • Bleeding at the wound site
  • Panting
  • Rapid heart rate

It’s critical to get veterinary care at once to stem infection, reduce pain, and monitor the dog's blood pressure. (A sudden drop in blood pressure can lead to shock.)

The Gila may have left tooth fragments in the wound, which must be removed to avoid infection. The cost of veterinary care for a Gila monster bite is widely variable depending on how long the animal was attached and how deep a bite resulted. However, it's safe to say this will not be an inexpensive visit to the vet.

Tips for protecting your dog from Gila monsters

  • Give the Gila monster plenty of room if you encounter one in the wild
  • Don't let your dog dig in areas where Gila monster burrows may be present
  • Secure your trash and avoid feeding your dog outdoors

Before you travel with your dog to the desert, consider investing in pet insurance. Paying for bite or sting treatment out of pocket can be a major financial burden. In the market for pet insurance? Compare leading pet insurance companies to find the right plan for your pet.

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